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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Between the Ideal and the Real – Before and After the Wedding

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on March 8, 2017)
Topics: Halakha & Modernity, Sex & Niddah

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This is a source sheet to accompany the panel that took place in Jerusalem on January 4, 2017 titled, “Between the Ideal and the Real: Challenges in Halacha and Sexuality Before and  After the Wedding.”


To listen to the audio from the panel, click on the following audio link:


It is Torah, and Learn it We Must

Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 62a:

רב כהנא על, גנא תותיה פורייה דרב. שמעיה דשח ושחק ועשה צרכיו, אמר (ליה): דמי פומיה דאבא כדלא שריף תבשילא! אמר לו: כהנא, הכא את? פוק, דלאו ארח ארעא. אמר לו: תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך.Rav Kehana went up and laid down underneath the bed of Rav. He then heard Rav speak, make sport, and satisfy his needs. And he said (some MS: to him) – “It seems that the mouth of Abba has never tasted a dish in his life.” Rav said to him: Kehana, you are here?! Get out –this is not the way of the world. He replied: “It is Torah, and to learn it I must.’


Private versus Shameful.

Guide for the Perplexed, III:8:

As we have said, there are among men individuals to whose mind all the impulses of matter are shameful and ugly things, deficiencies imposed by necessity; particularly so the sense of touch, which, as Aristotle has stated, is a shame for us, and because of which we wish to eat, to drink, and to copulate. Consequently, one’s recourse to these things should be reduced to the extent to which this is possible; one should do them in secret, should feel sorrowful because one does them, and not have them spoken of and discoursed about; no gathering should be held with a view to these things…

I can also give the reason why this our language is called the Holy Language. It should not be thought that this is, on our part, an empty appellation or a mistake; in fact it is indicative of true reality. For in this holy language no word at all has been laid down in order to designate either the male or the female organ of copulation, nor are there words designating the act itself that brings about generation, the sperm, the urine, or the excrements. No word at all designating, according to its first meaning, any of these things has been laid down in the Hebrew language, they being signified by terms used in a figurative sense and by allusions…

“Holy Epistle” ascribed to Ramban, ch. 2:

דע כי חבור זה הוא ענין קדוש ונקי כשיהיה הדבר כפי מה שראוי ובזמן הראוי ובכוונה הנכונה. ואל יחשוב אדם כי בחבור הראוי יש גנאי וכיעור ח”ו. שהחבור הראוי נקרא ידיעה, ולא לחנם נקרא כך כאמור (ש”א א) וידע אלקנה את חנה אשתו… ודע שאלו לא היה בדבר קדושה גדולה לא היו קוראין אל החבור ידיעה.
[ואין הדבר כאשר חשב הרב המורה ז”ל במורה הנבוכים בהיותו משבח לארסט”ו על מה שאמר כי חוש המשוש הוא חרפה לנו. חלילה, אין הדבר כמו שאמר היוני, לפי שדעתו היוני יש שמץ מינות שאינו מורגש, שאלו היה מאמין שהעולם מחודש בכוונה לא היה אומר כך זה היוני הבליעל. אבל כל בעלי התורה מאמינים שהשם] (והשי”ת) ברא את הכל כפי מה שגזרה חכמתו, ולא ברא דבר שיהיה גנאי או כיעור, שאם יאמר שהחבור הוא דבר של גנאי, הנה כלי המשגל הם כלי הגנות, והרי השי”ת בראם במאמרו … ואם כלי המשגל גנאי, היאך ברא הש”י דבר שיש בו משום חסרון או גנות חלילה, אלא פעולותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא תמימות שנאמר (שם לב) הצור תמים פעלו. [ואומר וירא אלקים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד]…
כך הם כלי המשגל לאדם ולאשתו קודם שחטאו. וכמו שיש בכל אבר ואבר מהאברים מהלל ושבח בעשות הטוב וגנאי בעשות הרע, כך היה לאדם הראשון בכלי המשגל… אין בכל אברי האדם מצד הבריאה דבר קלקול או כיעור כי הכל בחכמה עליונית דבר מתוקן וטוב ונאה, אבל האדם בהיות סכל מביא כיעור בדברים שאין בהם כיעור מתחלה. והבן זה מאוד.
Know that this “unifying” (of man and woman, i.e., sexual intercourse) is a holy, pure (lit. “clean”) matter, when it is done in the proper way and at the proper time and with the proper intent. A person should not think that in this act of “unifying” done properly there is anything shameful or disgusting – God forbid! For the proper “unifying” is called “knowledge,” and it is not for naught that it was called this, as it says, “And Elkana knew Channa his wife” (Shmuel I, 1)… Know, that had there not been in this matter great holiness, they would not have used the term “knowing” to refer to “unifying”.

The matter is not like the Rabbi (Rambam) thought in his Guide to the Perplexed, where he praised Aristotle for his statement that the sense of touch is a shame for us. God forbid! The matter is not like the Greek has said, for his Greek intellect has a trace of heresy that cannot be detected, for had he believed that the world was created from nothing with [Divine] intention, this godless Greek would not have said such a thing. But all masters of Torah believe that God created everything according to His wisdom, and He did not create anything which would be [inherently] shameful or disgusting. For were one to say that “unifying” is shameful matter, then the sexual organs are shameful organs. Now God, may He be praised, created them with His word… Now if the sexual organs were shameful, how did God create something that is lacking or is shameful?! – God forbid! Rather the acts of God are perfect, as it says, “The Rock, His ways are perfect” (Devarim 32). And it says, “And God saw all that He had done, and behold it was very good.” (Breishit 1)…

And the same way that with any limb there is praise when it does good, and there is embarrassment when it does evil, so it was with Adam and his sexual organs… There is not in any of a person’s organs, based on how it was created, anything lacking or disgusting, for it was all created with supernal wisdom, fit and good and pleasant. But it is the person, being foolish, who brings disgusting elements to something that was free of any disgusting thing originally. Understand this well.

Shomer Negiah versus Mitzvat Negiah (at the right time)

A Letter of the Steipler (R Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky 1899-1985):

חיוב עונה

ב. בחיוב עונה – כל קירוב (חבוב) חבוק ונישוק. החזו”א התיר להרהר באשתו טהורה משום קרובה, וצריך לעשות כל שהאשה מתאוה (בשם החזו”א זצ”ל) וע”כ ישכב עם אשתו בקירוב בשר ובחיבוק ונישוק כרבע שעה לפני החיבור, זה באופן רגיל. אך אם הוא מחומם וחושש שיצא הזרע ח”ו ימהר. ואחר החיבור ישכב עם אשתו משך חצי שעה כי בזה יש לה הנאה מרובה יותר מעצם המעשה…

ממרן בעל הקהלות יעקוב שליט”א

תשרי תשל”ד

Marital obligation of sex…

2. The Obligation – all forms of contact (intimacy or “intimate contact”), touch, and kissing are included. The Hazon Ish allows a man to have sexual thoughts for his wife (when she is not a niddah) for the sake of becoming physically intimate with her, and a man must do all that his wife desires (in the name of the Hazon Ish). Thus, he should lie with his wife together naked with touching and kissing for approximately a quarter of an hour before intercourse – this is under normal circumstances. But if he is already sexually excited and concerned that he will ejaculate prematurely, God forbid, then he should speed up (the foreplay). And after intercourse, he should lie with his wife for a half-hour, because this will give her greater pleasure than the act itself…

From the Steipler Rav, author of Khilot Yaakov
Tishrei 5734 (1973)

The Ideal and the Real – Before the Wedding in Judea

Mishna Ketuvot 1:5:

האוכל אצל חמיו ביהודה שלא בעדים אינו יכול לטעון טענת בתולים מפני שמתייחד עמהYaltha once said to R. Nahman: Observe, for everything that Scripture has forbidden us it has permitted us an equivalent: it has forbidden us blood but it has permitted us liver. It has forbidden us intercourse during menstruation but it has permitted us the blood of purification (following childbirth). It has forbidden us the fat of cattle but it has permitted us the fat of wild beasts. It has forbidden us swine’s flesh but it has permitted us the brain of the shibbuta (a certain fish). It has forbidden us the girutha (a certain non-kosher fish) but it has permitted us the tongue of kosher fish. It has forbidden us the married woman but it has permitted us the divorcee during the lifetime of her former husband. It has forbidden us the brother’s wife but it has permitted us the levirate marriage. It has forbidden us the non-Jewess but it has permitted us the beautiful woman [taken in war]…


Talmudic Times and Today’s Times

Notice how important it was to certain Amoraim that a man marry at an early age so as to avoid illicit sexual thoughts. This young age of marriage undoubtedly made it easier to abide – at least to a greater degree – by the prohibition against masturbation.

Kiddushin (29b):

משתבח ליה רב חסדא לרב הונא בדרב המנונא דאדם גדול הוא, א”ל: כשיבא לידך הביאהו לידי. כי אתא, חזייה דלא פריס סודרא
א”ל: מאי טעמא לא פריסת סודרא?
א”ל: דלא נסיבנא.
אהדרינהו לאפיה מיניה, א”ל: חזי, דלא חזית להו לאפי עד דנסבת. רב הונא לטעמיה, דאמר: בן עשרים שנה ולא נשא אשה – כל ימיו בעבירה. בעבירה סלקא דעתך? אלא אימא: כל ימיו בהרהור עבירה.
אמר רבא, וכן תנא דבי ר’ ישמעאל: עד כ’ שנה, יושב הקדוש ברוך הוא ומצפה לאדם מתי ישא אשה, כיון שהגיע כ’ ולא נשא, אומר: תיפח עצמותיו. אמר רב חסדא: האי דעדיפנא מחבראי – דנסיבנא בשיתסר, ואי הוה נסיבנא בארביסר, הוה אמינא לשטן גירא בעיניך.
R. Hisda praised R. Hamnuna before R. Huna as a great man. Said he to him, When he visits you, bring him to me. When he arrived, he saw that he wore no [head-]covering (indicating that he was single).

“Why have you no head-dress?” asked he. ‘

“Because I am not married,” was the reply.

Thereupon he [R. Huna] turned his face away from him. “See to it that you do not appear before me [again] before you are married,” said he. R. Huna was thus in accordance with his views. For he said: “He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin.” In sin – can you really think so? But say, spends all his days in sinful thoughts.

Rava said, and the School of R. Ishmael taught likewise: Until the age of twenty, the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and waits, asking, “When will he take a wife?” As soon as one attains twenty and has not married, He exclaims, Blasted be his bones!

Rav Hisda said: The reason that I am superior to my colleagues is that I married at sixteen. And had I married at fourteen, I would have said to Satan, An arrow in your eye.

Rav Yehudah Herzl Henkin speculates as to why masturbation seems to be such a pervasive problem nowadays, noting the reason of the later age of marriage, among others. 

Responsa Benei Banim, 2:41:

והתפשטות הוצאת ז” ל בדורינו באה מג’ סיבות , א’ הפריצות הקורצת מכל עבר וב’ איחור גיל הנשואין וג’ סדורי החיים והפרטיות המאפשרים לאדם להסתגר לבד. The spread of the occurrence of masturbation in our generation comes from one of three reasons. (1) the immodesty that beckons from all quarters, (2) the postponing of the age of marriage, and (3) the lifestyle and the privacy which allows a person to seclude himself in private.  



The Woman’s Niddah Status

The prohibition against sexual contact before marriage emerges from the fact that the woman is a niddah.  The possibility that women should go to the mikveh to remove this restriction was rejected communally as a way to safeguard against pre-marital sex, as reflected in Rivash.

Responsa Rivash (Barcelona, 1326-1408), 425:

ומה שנפלאת: איך לא תקנו טבילה לפנויה, כדי שלא יכשלו בה רבים? ואין כאן מקום תמה! שהרי כיון שהפנויה אסורה, כמש”כ. אדרבה! אם היתה טובלת, היה בה מכשול: שהיו מקילין באסורה; כיון שאין אסורה, אלא מדרבנן….You were astounded: How could it be that the Rabbis did not institute a practice for unmarried women to immerse (in the mikveh after menstruation), so that the masses should not stumble (i.e., transgress the weighty niddah prohibition if they were to engage in pre-marital sex)? There is nothing to be astounded about! For behold, since a single woman is forbidden regardless, as we have written (according to Rambam even if the woman is not a niddah, there is a Biblical prohibition, others argue that the prohibition is only Rabbinic or that there is no prohibition at all; Radvaz concludes that the prohibition is Rabbinic), then the opposite is the case! Were she to immerse, that would cause people to sin, for they would treat the prohibition (against pre-marital sex) lightly, since she would only be forbidden as a Rabbinic mater…


Zera LiVatalah

Harsh Condemnation in the Talmud, But No Harsher than Lason HaRa

Bavli, Niddah 13a-b:

וכל כך למה? מפני שמוציא שכבת זרע לבטלהֹ דא”ר יוחנן: כל המוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה חייב מיתה, שנאמר (בראשית ל”ח) וירע בעיני ה’ (את) אשר עשה וימת גם אותו.

רבי יצחק ורבי אמי אמרי: כאילו שופך דמים שנאמר (ישעיהו נ”ז) הנחמים באלים תחת כל עץ רענן שוחטי הילדים בנחלים תחת סעיפי הסלעים, אל תקרי שוחטי אלא סוחטי.

רב אסי אמר: כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים, כתיב הכא תחת כל עץ רענן וכתיב התם (דברים יב) על ההרים הרמים ותחת כל עץ רענן…

[ע”ב] אמר רב: המקשה עצמו לדעת יהא בנדוי, ולימא אסורִ דקמגרי יצה”ר אנפשיה.

ורבי אמי אמר: נקרא עבריין, שכך אומנתו של יצר הרע, היום אומר לו עשה כך, ולמחר אומר לו עשה כך, ולמחר אומר לו לך עבוד עבודת כוכבים ־ והולך ועובד.

איכא דאמרי, אמר רבי אמי: כל המביא עצמו לידי הרהור אין מכניסין אותו במחיצתו של הקב”ה, כתיב הכא (בראשית ל”ח) וירע בעיני ה’ וכתיב התם (תהלים ה’) כי לא אל חפץ רשע אתה לא יגורך רע.

ואמר ר’ אלעזר: מאי דכתיב (ישעיהו א’) ידיכם דמים מלאו ־ אלו המנאפים ביד. תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: (שמות כ’) לא תנאף ־ לא תהא בך ניאוף, בין ביד בין ברגל.

But why all these precautions? — Because otherwise one might emit semen in vain, and R. Yochanan stated: Whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, for it is said in Scripture: “And the thing which he (Onan) did was evil in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also.” (Gen. 38:10)

R. Isaac and R. Ammi said. He is as though he shed blood, for it is said in Scripture: “You that inflame yourselves among the terebinths, under every leafy tree, that slay the children in the valleys under the clefts of the rocks” (Isa. 57:5) read not ‘that slay’ but ‘that squeeze out’.

R. Assi said: He is like one who worships idols; for here it is written, ‘Under every leafy tree’ and elsewhere it is written: “Upon the high mountains . . . and under every leafy tree.” (Deut. 12:12)…

[13b] Rav stated: ‘A man who wilfully causes an erection should be placed under the ban’. But why did he not say, ‘This is forbidden’? Because the man merely incites his evil inclination against himself.
R. Ammi, however, stated: He is called a transgressor, because such is the art of the evil inclination: To-day it incites man to do one wrong thing, and to-morrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.

There are others who read: R. Ammi stated, He who excites himself by lustful thoughts will not be allowed to enter the division of the Holy One, blessed be He. For here it is written, Was evil in the sight of the Lord, and elsewhere it is written, For Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness; evil shall not sojourn with Thee. (Ps. 5:5).

R. Eleazar stated: Who are referred to in the Scriptural text, “Your hands are full of blood?” (Isa. 1:15) Those that commit masturbation with their hands. It was taught at the school of R. Ishmael, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:13) implies, Thou shalt not practice masturbation (lit., adultery) either with hand or with foot.

It is worth comparing some of the exhortations in the Gemara and Zohar regarding wasting of seed to those that appear in the Gemara regarding the speaking of lashon ha’rah.  Within the Gemara itself, the condemnation of lashon ha’rah seems even more severe, and it is only by lashon ha’rah – and not regarding spilling of seed – that the Gemara says there is no remedy after the fact. 

Bavli, Sotah (42a):

א”ר ירמיה בר אבא, ארבע כיתות אין מקבלות פני שכינה: כת ליצים, וכת חניפים, וכת שקרים, וכת מספרי לשון הרע… כת מספרי לשון הרע, דכתיב: כי לא א-ל חפץ רשע אתה לא יגורך רע, צדיק אתה ה’ לא יגור במגורך רע. R. Yeremiah b. Abba said: Four classes will not receive the presence of the Shekhinah: the class of scoffers, the class of flatterers, the class of liars, and, the class of slanderers (lashon ha’rah)… The class of slanderers, as it is written: “For Thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness; evil shall not dwell with Thee,” i.e., Thou art righteous, O Lord, evil may not dwell in Thy habitation.

Bavli, Arakhin (15b):

אמר ר’ יוחנן משום ר’ יוסי בן זימרא: כל המספר לשון הרע – כאילו כפר בעיקר, שנאמר: אשר אמרו ללשוננו נגביר שפתינו אתנו מי אדון לנו. ואמר ר’ יוסי בן זימרא: כל המספר לשון הרע – נגעים באים עליו…
אמר רב חסדא אמר מר עוקבא: כל המספר לשון הרע. ראוי לסוקלו באבן, כתיב הכא: אותו אצמית, וכתיב התם, צמתו בבור חיי וידו אבן בי. ואמר רב חסדא אמר מר עוקבא: כל המספר לשון הרע, אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אין אני והוא יכולין לדור בעולם …
רבי אחא ברבי חנינא אומר: סיפר אין לו תקנה, שכבר כרתו דוד ברוח הקדש, שנאמר: יכרת ה’ כל שפתי חלקות לשון מדברת גדולות…
תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל: כל המספר לשון הרע – מגדיל עונות כנגד שלש עבירות, עבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים… במערבא אמרי: לשון תליתאי קטיל תליתאי, הורג למספרו ולמקבלו ולאומרו
Said R. Yochanan in the name of R. Yosef b. Zimra: One who one who speaks lashon ha’rah, it is as if he denies the foundation [of faith], as it is said: “Who have said: Our tongue will we make mighty; our lips are with us; who is lord over us?” And R. Yosef b. Zimra said: Anyone who speaks lashon ha’rah will be visited by the plague of leprosy…

R. Hisda said in the name of Mar Ukba: One who slanders deserves to be stoned with stones. It is written here: ‘”Him atzmit [will I destroy],” and it is written there: “tzametu [they have cut off] my life in the dungeon, and have cast stones upon me.” Further did R. Hisda say in the name of Mar Ukba: Of him who tells lashon ha’rah, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: He and I cannot live together in the world…

R. Aha b. R. Hanina said: If he has slandered already, there is no remedy for him, for King David, in his holy spirit, has cut him off already, as it is said: “May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that speak great [proud] things!”…

The School of R. Ishmael taught: Whoever speaks slander increases his sins even up to [the degree of] the three [cardinal] sins: idolatry, incest, and the shedding of blood… In the West [land of Israel] they say: The talk about third [persons] kills three persons: him who tells [the slander], him who accepts it, and him about whom it is told.



The Zohar was extremely influential seeing the wasting of seed as an unpardonable and enormously weighty sin with serious metaphysical consequences. It is associated with Er and Onan, in particular playing on the word association of ra, evil, with Er, ער, the word רע spelled backwards.  Notice that the Zohar says that this sin is worse than murder because a person murders his own sons (the semen which could have become his sons).  It also states that even teshuva will not repair this sin.

Zohar, VaYechei, 219b:


אוי לרשע רע כי גמול ידיו יעשה לו מאי גמול ידיו אמר ר’ יצחק לאכללא מאן דזני בידוי לאפקא ולחבלא זרעיה בריקניא דהא תנינן כל מאן דאפיק זרעיה בריקניא אקרי רע ולא חמי אפי שכינתא דכתיב (תהלים ה’) כי לא אל חפץ רשע אתה לא יגורך רע וכתיב (בראשית ל”ח) ויהי ער בכור יהודה רע אוף הכא אוי לרשע רע ווי לההוא חייבא דאיהו רע דעבד גרמיה רע כי גמול ידיו יעשה לו לאכללא מאן דזני בידוי לאפקא ולחבלא זרעיה בריקניא ולהאי טרדין בההוא עלמא יתיר מכלא
ת”ח דהא כתיב אוי לרשע (רע) כיון דכתיב אוי לרשע אמאי רע אלא כמה דאמינא דעבד גרמיה רע, וכתיב לא יגורך רע, וכלהו סלקין והאי לא סליק ואי תימא שאר חייבין דקטלו בני נשא, ת”ח כלהו סלקין והוא לא סליק מ”ט אינון קטילו בני נשא אחרא והאי קטיל בנוי ממש אושיד דמין סגיאין
ת”ח בשאר חייבי עלמא לא כתיב וירע בעיני יי’ וכאן כתיב וירע בעיני יי’ אשר עשה מ”ט משום דכתיב ושחת ארצה
תנן אמר ר’ יהודה לית לך חובא בעלמא דלא אית ליה תשובה בר מהאי ולית לך חייביא דלא חמאן אפי שכינתא בר מהאי דכתיב לא יגורך רע כלל א”ר יצחק זכאין אינון צדיקייא בעלמא דין ובעלמא דאתי עלייהו כתיב (ישעיה ס’) ועמך כלם צדיקים לעולם יירשו ארץ, מאי לעולם יירשו ארץ א”ר יהודה כמה דכתיב (תהלים קט”ו) אתהלך לפני ה’ בארצות החיים:
Then they all exclaim: “Woe to the wicked for his evil (ra), for the recompense of his hands shall be given to him.” (Is. III, 11).’ What is meant by “The recompense of his hands”? Said R. Yitzchak: this is meant to include one who fornicates with his hand to emit and waste his seed for naught, because we have taught that whoever emits his seed for naught is called evil (ra) and will not see the face of the Shekhina, as it states, “For you are not a God who desires the evil man, evil (ra) does not dwell together with You.” (Ps. 5). And it states, “And Er the firstborn of Yehudah was wicked (ra) [in the eyes of God]” (Gen 38). Here, too, woe to the wicked man for his evil (ra) – woe to the person who is guilty, for he is evil (ra) for he has made himself evil (ra), for the recompense of his hands will be done to him, which includes one who fornicates with his hands to emit and destroy seed wastefully and such a person they punish in the next world more than anyone else.

Come and see, it is written “Woe to the wicked” – since it says “Woe to the wicked” why did it also have say “evil (ra)”? But it is as I have said – for he has made himself evil, and it says that “Evil will not dwell with You”. For all will go up [from Gehinom] but he will not go up. You may ask: what about other sinners who have murdered people? Come and see – all of those will go up and he will not go up. For what reason? They have killed other people (“the sons of another man”), but he has killed his own sons and has spilled much blood.
Come and see, regarding other sinners of the world it does not write, “It was evil in the eyes of God,” and here it writes, “it was evil in the eyes of God what he did.” For what reason [was it evil]? As it writes: “and he wasted [his seed] on the ground.”

We have taught – Rabbi Yehudah said: There is no sin in the world that one cannot do teshuva for, with the exception of this one, and there is no sinner that does not see the face of the Shekhina except for this one, as it is written, “Evil will not dwell with you” – at all. Said Rabbi Yitzchak, praised are the righteous in this world and in the world to come. It is written, “And your nation is fully righteous, they shall inherit the land forever.” (Is. 60). What is meant “they will inherit the land forever”? Said Rabbi Yehudah, as it is written, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” (Ps. 115).

Tfillah Zakkah is heavily influenced by the Kabbalistic ideas relating to spilling of seed – notice the hyper-focus on this sin and its severity, and how it is the source of creating evil spirits in the world.

Tfillah Zakah (to be recited before Yom Kippur):

רִבּוֹן כָּל הָעוֹלָמִים אַב הָרַחֲמִים וְהַסְּלִיחוֹת אֲשֶׁר יְמִינְךָ פְּשׁוּטָה לְקַבֵּל שָׁבִים. וְאַתָּה בָּרָאתָ אֶת הָאָדָם לְהֵיטִיב לוֹ בְּאַחֲרִיתוֹ. וּבָרָאתָ לוֹ שְׁנֵי יְצָרִים יֵצֶר טוֹב וְיֵצֶר רָע, כְּדֵי שֶׁתִּהְיֶה הַבְּחִירָה בְּיָדוֹ לִבְחֹר בְּטוֹב אוֹ בְרָע, כְּדֵי לָתֶת לוֹ שכָר טוֹב עַל טוּב בְּחִירָתוֹ כִּי כֵן גָּזְרָה חָכְמָתֶךָ. כַּכָּתוּב רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם אֶת הַחַיִּים וְאֶת הַטּוֹב וְאֶת הַמָּוֶת וְאֶת הָרָע וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים. וְעַתָּה אֱ-לֹהַי, לֹא שָׁמַעְתִּי לְקוֹלֶךָ וְהָלַכְתִּי בַּעֲצַת הַיֵּצֶר הָרָע וּבְדַרְכֵי לִבִּי, וּמָאַסְתִּי בְטוֹב וּבָחַרְתִּי בְרָע. וְלֹא דַי לִי שֶׁלֹּא קִדַּשְׁתִּי אֶת אֵיבָרַי אֶלָּא טִמֵּאתִי אוֹתָם. בָּרָאתָ בִּי מֹחַ וָלֵב וּבָהֶם חוּשׁ הַמַּחֲשָׁבָה לַחְשֹׁב מַחֲשָׁבוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְהַרְהוֹרִים טוֹבִים וְלֵב לְהָבִין דִּבְרֵי קָדְשֶׁךָ וּלְהִתְפַּלֵּל וּלְבָרֵךְ כָּל הַבְּרָכוֹת בְּמַחֲשָׁבָה טְהוֹרָה. וַאֲנִי טִמֵּאתִי אוֹתָם בְּהַרְהוֹרִים וּמַחֲשָׁבוֹת זָרוֹת. וְלֹא דַי לִי בָּזֶה אֶלָּא שֶׁעַל יְדֵי הַהַרְהוֹרִים הָרָעִים בָּאתִי לִידֵי טֻמְאָה פַּעַם בְּרָצוֹן וּפַעַם בְּאֹנֶס בְּטֻמְאָה הַמְּטַמֵּאת אֶת כָּל הַגּוּף. וּמֵהֶם בָּרָאתִי מַשְׁחִיתִים וּמְחַבְּלִים הַנִּקְרָאִים נִגְעֵי בְנֵי אָדָם.
אוֹי לִי כִּי תַחַת הַמַּחֲשָׁבוֹת הַטּוֹבוֹת שֶׁיָּכֹלְתִּי לִבְרֹא עַל יְדֵי זֶה מַלְאָכִים קְדוֹשִׁים שֶׁיִּהְיוּ סַנֵּגוֹרִים וּפְרַקְלִיטִים טוֹבִים עָלַי, תַּחְתֵּיהֶם בָּרָאתִי מַשְׁחִיתִים לְחַבֵּל אֶת עַצְמִי כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב וְהוֹכַחְתִּיו בְּשֵׁבֶט אֲנָשִׁים וּבְנִגְעֵי בְּנֵי אָדָם.
בָּרָאתָ בִּי עֵינַיִם וּבָהֶם חוּשׁ הָרְאוּת לִרְאוֹת בָּהֶם מַה שֶּׁכָּתוּב בַּתּוֹרָה וּלְקַדֵּשׁ אוֹתָם בִּרְאִיַּת כָּל דְּבָרִים שֶׁבִּקְדֻשָּׁה וְהִזְהַרְתָּ בְּתוֹרָתֶךָ וְלֹא תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם. אוֹי לִי כִּי הָלַכְתִּי אַחֲרֵי עֵינַי וְטִמֵּאתִי אוֹתָם לְהִסְתַּכֵּל בְּכָל דְּבַר טֻמְאָה…
Master of the universe, Father of compassion and forgiveness, whose right hand is outstretched to accept those who return. You created man to do good to him in his end. And you created in him two inclinations, the good inclination and the evil inclination, so that the choice would be in his hand to choose between good and evil, in order to give him a good reward for the goodness of his choice, for so did Your wisdom decree, as it says, “Behold I have given you today life and the good, and death and the bad, and you shall choose life.” Now, my God, I have not listened to your voice, and I have followed the advice of the evil inclination and in the ways of my heart, and I have despised the good and chosen the bad. It is not sufficient that I did not sanctify my limbs, but rather I impurified them. You have created in me a mind and a heart, and with them the power of thought to think good thoughts and good ruminations, and a heart to understand Your holy words and to prayer and to bless all of the blessings with pure thought. But I impurified them with foreign thoughts and ruminations. And that was not sufficient, but through these evil thoughts I have come to impurity, at times willingly and at times perforce, with an impurity that impurifies the entire body. And from these I have created destroyers and destructors, which are called “the affliction of the sons of man-Adam”.

Woe to me. For instead of the good thoughts through which I could have created holy angels which would be my defense attorneys and good intercessors on my behalf, in their stead I have created destroyers to bring injury upon myself, as it is written, “And I will remonstrate him with the staff of people and with the afflictions of the sons of man-Adam”.

You have created for me eyes, and with them the power of site to see with them what is written in your Torah and to sanctify them with looking at matters of holiness, and You commanded us in Your Torah, “And you shall not stray after your hearts and after your eyes.” Woe to me, for I have followed my eyes and impurified them with all matters of impurity…



Shulkhan Arukh follows the Gemara and rules that masturbation is forbidden, and incorporates the Zohar’s perspective, stating that this is the most severe sin in the Torah.

Shulkhan Arukh, Even Ha’Ezer, 23:

[א] אסור להוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה ועון זה חמור מכל עבירות שבתורה. לפיכך לא יהיה אדם דש מבפנים וזורה מבחוץ, ולא ישא קטנה שאינה ראויה לילד.

[ב] אלו שמנאפים ביד ומוציאים שכבת זרע, לא די להם שאיסור גדול הוא, אלא שהעושה זה בנידוי הוא יושב ועליהם נאמר: ידיכם דמים מלאו (ישעיה א, טו) וכאלו הרג הנפש.

[1] It is forbidden for a person to emit his seed for naught, and this sin is greater than all other sins in the Torah. Therefore, a person should not “thresh on the inside and winnow on the outside,” and he should not marry a minor who is unable to conceive.

[2] Those who commit adultery with their hands (i.e., who masturbate) and emit their seed for naught, beyond the fact that this is a great transgression, they also must sit under the ban, and regarding them the verse says, “Your hands are filled with blood” (Is. 1:15), and it is as if they have committed murder.

Beit Shmuel makes it clear that Shulkhan Arukh’s statement about the severity of this sin is not meant literally.  He quotes Sefer Hasidim which allows a man to masturbate as a way of avoiding a more severe sin of sex with a woman who is forbidden to him.  It is not clear if this is on the basis of choosing the lesser of two sins, or if under these circumstances it is not considered as if the seed is being emitted “for naught.”

Beit Shmuel, Even Ha’Ezer, 23:1:

אסור להוצי’ ש”ז – כתב ח”מ בשם ספר החסידים אם מתירא שאל יכשל בא”א או בנדה ח”ו טוב לו להוצי’ זרע לבטלה רק יתענה מ’ יום בימי הקיץ או ישב בקור בימי החורף לפ”ז מ”ש בזוהר וכאן דעון מוציא ש”ז חמיר מכל עבירות לאו דוק’:It is forbidden to emit seed for naught – Chelkat Mechokek writes in the name of Sefer Chasidim that if a person fears that he may transgress the prohibition of adultery or having sex with a niddah, God forbid, it is better for him to emit his seed for naught, but he must then fast for forty days in the Summer, of sit in the cold in the winter. Based on this [quote], what is written in the Zohar and here [in Shulkhan Arukh] that the sin of wasting of seed is greater than all other sins – is not to be taken literally.

The Biblical Story of Onan – Is it a Sin of Zera Li’vatalah)?

The most often cited source for the prohibition (or condemnation) of masturbation is the story of Er and Onan (hence the word “onanism”). This is indeed how Rashi explains it based on the Gemara in Niddha – that the sin of Onan, as well as that of Er, was the spilling of seed. 

Breishit 38:

(ח) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה לְאוֹנָן בֹּא אֶל אֵשֶׁת אָחִיךָ וְיַבֵּם אֹתָהּ וְהָקֵם זֶרַע לְאָחִיךָ:

(ט) וַיֵּדַע אוֹנָן כִּי לֹּא לוֹ יִהְיֶה הַזָּרַע וְהָיָה אִם בָּא אֶל אֵשֶׁת אָחִיו וְשִׁחֵת אַרְצָה לְבִלְתִּי נְתָן זֶרַע לְאָחִיו:

(י) וַיֵּרַע בְּעֵינֵי ה’ אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וַיָּמֶת גַּם אֹתוֹ:

8. And Yehudah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry (yabem, the duty of the dead husband’s brother) her, and raise up seed to thy brother.

9. And Onan knew that the seed would not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.

10. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him also.

Rashi, Breishit 38:7:

רע בעיני ה’ – כרעתו של אונן משחית זרעו, שנאמר באונן (פסוק י) וימת גם אותו, כמיתתו של ער מיתתו של אונן, ולמה היה ער משחית זרעו, כדי שלא תתעבר ויכחיש יפיה:[Er was] evil in the eyes of God – just like the evil of Onan who would waste his seed, as it says by Onan, “And God killed him also” – just as the death of Er was the death of Onan. And why did Er waste his seed? So that Tamar would not become pregnant and her beauty would be diminished.

Bavli, Niddah 13a:

דא”ר יוחנן: כל המוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה חייב מיתה, שנאמר (בראשית ל”ח) וירע בעיני ה’ (את) אשר עשה וימת גם אותו.R. Yochanan stated: Whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, for it is said in Scripture: “And the thing which he (Onan) did was evil in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also.” (Gen. 38:10) 

However, the simple sense of  the Biblical story is that Onan’s sin was in his not fulfilling of his obligation to his brother. The verse makes this clear – the problem with ושחת ארצה was that it was לבלתי נתן זרע לאחיו.  It is worth noting in this regard that the phrase  השחתת זרע, which borrows from this story appears first only in the Rishonim.  The Gemara, in contrast, refers to מוציא זרע לבטלה.

Read this way, the sin was one of shirking filial responsibility.  A modern restating of that would be that the sin was using Tamar as an object not a subject – a means for his sexual gratification without regards to any of the ethical aspects of the act – his obligation to his brother and his obligation to relate to Tamar in the act of sex.

This pshat reading – that the problem was one of Yibbum – is stated by Ha’amek Davar.

Ha’amek Davar, Breishit 38:10:

כאן היה המעשה ראוי להמיתו… אבל המעשה גרם שלא יזכה לבנים כמו שלא נתן זרע לאחיו באותו מעשה Here the act [that Onan did]was deserving for God to kill him [as opposed to Er, who was killed because he was not deserving to be the father of the future Davidic line]… But it was the act that made him [die and] not merit having children, just as he did not give seed to his bother through that act [of spilling seed].

However, following Rabbinic tradition, Rashi explains that the sin of Onan, as well as that of Er, was the spilling of seed.  This is echoing the passage from the Gemara Niddah, which demonstrates from this story that the sin is deserving of death.

Rashi, Breishit 38:7:

רע בעיני ה’ – כרעתו של אונן משחית זרעו, שנאמר באונן (פסוק י) וימת גם אותו, כמיתתו של ער מיתתו של אונן, ולמה היה ער משחית זרעו, כדי שלא תתעבר ויכחיש יפיה:[Er was] evil in the eyes of God – just like the evil of Onan who would waste his seed, as it says by Onan, “And God killed him also” – just as the death of Er was the death of Onan. And why did Er waste his seed? So that Tamar would not become pregnant and her beauty would be diminished.

Bavli, Niddah 13a:

דא”ר יוחנן: כל המוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה חייב מיתה, שנאמר (בראשית ל”ח) וירע בעיני ה’ (את) אשר עשה וימת גם אותו.R. Yochanan stated: Whosoever emits semen in vain deserves death, for it is said in Scripture: “And the thing which he (Onan) did was evil in the sight of the Lord, and He slew him also.” (Gen. 38:10)


An Ethos of Sex

The Talmud rejects the position that certain acts are forbidden in the context of marital sex.  What does mater, says the Talmud, is not the particular physical quality of the act, but its moral character.  The emotional and mental state of the participants is key.  The couple may not have sex if the act is devoid of any sense of intimacy or connection.  They may not engage in sex when on of them is drunk or asleep, in the absence of full consent, or while imagining having sex with another person (and thus using one’s partner as a stand-in for someone else).

Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim,  20b:

א”ר יוחנן: זו דברי יוחנן בן דהבאי, אבל אמרו חכמים! אין הלכה כיוחנן בן דהבאי, אלא כל מה שאדם רוצה לעשות באשתו עושה…

ולא תתורו אחרי לבבכם – מכאן אמר רבי: אל ישתה אדם בכוס זה ויתן עיניו בכוס אחר. אמר רבינא: לא נצרכא אלא דאפילו ב’ נשיו.

וברותי מכם המורדים והפושעים בי – אמר רבי לוי: אלו בני תשע מדות, בני אסנ”ת משגע”ח: בני אימה, בני אנוסה, בני שנואה, בני נידוי, בני תמורה, בני מריבה, בני שכרות, בני גרושת הלב, בני ערבוביא, בני חצופה.

איני? והאמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן: כל אדם שאשתו תובעתו – הויין לו בנים שאפילו בדורו של משה רבינו לא היו כמותם, שנאמר: הבו לכם אנשים חכמים ונבונים, וכתיב: ואקח את ראשי שבטיכם ולא כתיב נבונים, וכתיב: יששכר חמור גרם, וכתיב: מבני יששכר יודעי בינה לעתים! ההיא דמרציא ארצויי.

R. Yochanan said: The above [that certain acts of marital sex are forbidden] is the view of R. Yochanan b. Dahabai; but our Sages said: The halachah is not as R. Yochanan b. Dahabai, but a man may do whatever he pleases with his wife [in regards to sexual activity]…

“And that ye seek not after your own heart.” [Deducing] from this Rabbi taught: One may not drink out of one goblet and think of another. Rabina said: This is necessary only when both are his wives.

“And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me.” R. Levi said: This refers to children belonging to the following nine categories: children of fear, of outrage, of a hated wife, one under a ban, of a woman mistaken for another, of strife, of intoxication [during intercourse], of a mentally divorced wife, of promiscuity, and of a brazen woman.

But that is not so: for did not R. Samuel b. Nahmani say in the name of R. Jonathan: One who is summoned to his marital duty by his wife will beget children such as were not to be found even in the generation of Moses? For it is said, “Take you wise men, and understanding ;” and it is written, “So I took the chiefs of your tribes, wise men and known” but ‘understanding’ is not mentioned. But it is also written, “Issachar is a large-boned donkey” while elsewhere it is written, “And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the titles?” — [It is virtuous] only when the wife ingratiates herself [with her husband].

Ran, ad. Loc.:

בני מריבה – אע”פ שאינו שונאה אלא שהיתה מריבה ביניהם לפי שעה.
בני שכרות – שמתוך שכרותו אינו נותן דעתו על אשתו.
Children of strife – although she is not hated, but merely that there is currently strife between them.
Children of drunkenness – because of his drunkenness he is not turning his thoughts to his wife.

Ra’avad, Ba’alei Hanefesh, Gate of Holiness:

בני מורדת, דאמרה ליה לא בעינא לך ואעפ”כ הוא משמש עמה הרי היא אצלו כמו זונה ואפילו מדעתה. והנוסחא האחרת בני מריבה, שהם מתקוטטים יום ולילה. הביאה ההיא אינה אלא זנות שאינה מתוך אהבה. בני שכרות, שהוא שכור או שהיא שכורה ואין בהם כוונת אהבה. “Children of rebellion” – that she says to him, “I do not want you”, and nevertheless he has sex with her, behold she is to him like a prostitute, even if she consents. The other version of this text is “children of strife,” that they are fighting day and night. That sex is nothing other than fornication, because it is not out of love. “Children of drunkenness” – that he is drunk or she is drunk, and there are not feelings of love.

The contemporary posek Kedushat HaOhel states that the key to sanctifying oneself during sex, as mentioned by Rema, is to ensure that the act of sex is being done with mutual consent, and that each person is attending to the needs of his or her partner, and not purely focused on one’s own sexual pleasure to the exclusion of his or her partner.

Kedushat HaOhel, p. 37, Rav Shmuel Kedar (Jerusalem, 1953-2006):

סיכום גדר ישראל קדושים: התבאר דהרמב”ם סבירא ליה דמעיקר הדין מותר לאדם לעשות באשתו כל מה שרוצה ובלבד שלא יעשה כן אלא אם מפייסה לכך. עוד התבאר דהיסוד לדרך הקודש הוא שמשמשין ברצון שניהם ובשמחתם ושלא יעשה מעשים שכל כוונתם לתכלית תענוגו…
המחבר נקט כשיטת הראב”ד ואף הוסיף להחמיר עליו. ואילו הרמ”א נקט שעיקר הדין כהרמב”ם והוסיף שכל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו. ונראה שקדושה זו עניינה היסודי: רצון שניהן ושמחתם…
To summarize the parameters of “Israel is holy”: We have explained that Rambam rules that as a matter of law a man is permitted to do with his wife anything that he wants, provided that he does nothing without her acquiescence. It has also been explained that the foundation for the path of holiness is that they have sex that is consensual and desired by both of them, and that both of them enjoy, and that he does not perform acts whose sole purpose is his pleasure alone…
The Mechaber adopted the positions of Raavad, and even added on this to be stricter even still [that certain acts of sex should not be done between husband and wife]. Whereas Rema rules that as a matter of law the ruling is in accordance with Rambam, and he adds that ‘whoever sanctifies himself in that which is permitted to him, ‘holy’ shall be said of him.” Now it appears that the core principle of this sanctity to which he refers is: the desire of the two of them and their pleasure….

A Competing Ethos

There is not one single Jewish or Talmudic ethos of sex.  The Talmud Nedarim, immediately prior to quoting Rabbi Yochanan’s “Whatever a man wants to do with his wife, he may do,” first quotes the position of Yochaan ben Dahavai who forbids certain sexual acts, and relates how Rabbi Eliezer took a much more restrictive and anxious approach towards martial sex. This ethos continues to be reflected in a number of Rishonim, and to various degrees in Shulkhan Arukh Orah Hayim and Even Ha’Ezer.  Rema in Even Ha’Ezer reflects the more permissive approach of Rabbi Yochanan.

Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim, 20a-20b:

אמר רבי יוחנן בן דהבאי, ד’ דברים סחו לי מלאכי השרת: חיגרין מפני מה הויין? מפני שהופכים את שולחנם, אילמים מפני מה הויין? מפני שמנשקים על אותו מקום, חרשים מפני מה הויין? מפני שמספרים בשעת תשמיש, סומין מפני מה הויין? מפני שמסתכלים באותו מקום.

ורמינהו, שאלו את אימא שלום: מפני מה בניך יפיפין ביותר? אמרה להן: אינו מספר עמי לא בתחלת הלילה ולא בסוף הלילה אלא בחצות הלילה, וכשהוא מספר מגלה טפח ומכסה טפח, ודומה עליו כמי שכפאו שד; ואמרתי לו: מה טעם? ואמר לי: כדי שלא אתן את עיני באשה אחרת, ונמצאו בניו באין לידי ממזרות! לא קשיא: הא במילי דתשמיש, הא במילי אחרנייתא.

R. Yochanan b. Dahabai said: The Ministering Angels told me four things: People are born lame because they [sc. their parents] overturned their table [i.e., practiced unnatural cohabitation]; mute, because they kiss ‘that place’; deaf, because they converse during cohabitation; blind, because they look at ‘that place’.

But this contradicts the following: Imma Shalom (R. Eliezer’s wife) was asked: Why are thy children so exceedingly beautiful? She replied: [Because] he [my husband] ‘converses’ with me neither at the beginning nor at the end of the night, but [only] at midnight; and when he ‘converses’, he uncovers a handbreadth and covers a hand breadth, and is as though he were compelled by a demon. And when I asked him, What is the reason for this [for choosing midnight], he replied, So that I may not think of another woman, lest my children be as bastards. — There is no difficulty: this refers to conjugal matters; the other refers to other matters.

Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim, 240:

[ג] וברותי מכם המורדים והפושעים בי (יחזקאל כ, לח) אלו בני תשעה מדות: בני אנוסה; בני שנואה; בני נידוי; בני תמורה; בני מורדת; בני שכרות; בני גרושת הלב; בני ערבוביא; בני חצופה.

[ד] אסור להסתכל באותו מקום, שכל המסתכל שם אין לו בושת פנים, ועובר על: והצנע לכת (מיכה ו, ח)… ועוד דקא מגרה יצר הרע בנפשיה, וכל שכן הנושק שם, שעובר על כל אלה ועוד, שעובר על: בל תשקצו את נפשותיכם.

[3] “And he will select from from you those who rebel and sin against Me” – these are the children of nine traits: the children of rape, the children a hated woman, the children of one under the ban, the children of an “exchanged” woman, the children of a rebellious woman, the children of drunkenness, the children of one divorced in the heart, the children of confusion, and the children of brazenness.

[4] It is forbidden for a man to look in “that place” for whoever looks in “that place” has no shame, and he transgresses “You shall walk modestly”…and additionally he incites the evil inclination on himself, and all the more so one who kisses thre transgresses all of these and also transgresses: “You shall not make your souls detestable.”

Shulhan Arukh, Even ha-Ezer, 25:2:

ולא יקל ראשו עם אשתו ולא ינבל פיו בדברי הבאי, אפילו בינו לבינה. הרי הכתוב אומר: מגיד לאדם מה שחו (עמוס ד, יג) אמרו חכמים ז”ל: אפילו שיחה קלה שבין אדם לאשתו עתיד ליתן עליה את הדין. ואל יספר עמה בשעת תשמיש ולא קודם לכן, כדי שלא יתן דעתו באשה אחרת, ואם ספר עמה ושמש מיד, עליו נאמר: מגיד לאדם מה שחו (עמוס ד, יג) אבל בענייני תשמיש יכול לספר עמה, כדי להרבות תאותו, או אם היה לו כעס עמה וצריך לרצותה שתתפייס, יכול לספר עמה כדי לרצותה.

הגה: ויכול לעשות עם אשתו מה שירצה, בועל בכל עת שירצה ומנשק בכל אבר שירצה, ובא עליה בין כדרכה בין שלא כדרכה, או דרך אברים ובלבד שלא יוציא זרע לבטלה (טור). ויש מקילין ואומרים שמותר שלא כדרכה אפילו אם הוציא זרע, אם עושה באקראי ואינו רגיל בכך (גם זה טור בשם ר”י).

ואע”פ שמותר בכל אלה, כל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו (דברי הרב).

ולא ירבה בתשמיש להיות מצוי אצלה תמיד, שדבר זה פגום הוא מאד ומעשה בורות הוא, אלא כל הממעט בתשמיש ה”ז משובח, ובלבד שלא יבטל עונה אלא מדעת אשתו.

ואף כשישמש בשעת העונה לא יכוין להנאתו, אלא כאדם הפורע חובו שהוא חייב בעונתה, ולקיים מצות בוראו בפריה ורביה, ושיהיו לו בנים עוסקים בתורה ומקיימי מצות בישראל.

ולא יבעול אלא מרצונה, ואם אינה מרוצה יפייסנה עד שתתרצה. ויהיה צנוע מאד בשעת תשמיש…

A man should not act frivolously with his wife, and he should not sully his mouth with words of nothingness, even between the two of them. Behold the verse says: “He tells man his speech.” And our Sages say: Even for the light speech between a man and his wife, he will eventually stand in judgment. And he should not talk to her at the time of sex, nor beforehand, so as not to be thinking of another woman. And if he talks with her and has sex immediately, regarding him it is said: “He tells a man his speech.” But he may talk with her regarding matters of sex, in order to increase his desire, or if he had anger with her and he had to appease her so that she would agree, he may talk with her in order to get her agreement.

Rema: And he may do with his wife what he wants – he may have sex at any time that he wants, he may kiss any body part that he wants, and he may have sex with her whether in the natural way or in the non-natural way, or whether by way of limbs as long as he does not spill his seed to waste (Tur). And there are those who are lenient and say that it is permissible in the non-natural way, even if he ejaculates, if he does this only occasionally and not as a habitual practice.

And although all such behavior is permissible, whoever sanctifies himself in permissible realms, “holy” will he be called.

And he should not have sex too much, to be with his wife constantly, for this matter is very damaging and an act of fools, but rather whoever limits the amount that he has sex is to be praised, provided that he does not negate his obligation of onah without his wife’s permission.

And even when he has sex at the time of onah he should not intend for his own pleasure, but like a person who is paying a debt, because he is obligated in her onah, and to fulfill the commandment of his Creator to procreate, and that he should have sons to learn Torah and fulfill the mitzvoth among the Jewish people.

He should only have sex with her agreement, and if she is not interested, he must appease her until she agrees. And he should be very modest at the time of sex…

The Prostitute and the Tzitzit

This story shows that there is an ethical and interpersonal dimension to our actions in sexual matters, independent of the issue of sin and halakha, and we have an obligation to address and own this dimension as well.

Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 44b:

תניא, א”ר נתן: אין לך כל מצוה קלה שכתובה בתורה, שאין מתן שכרה בעה”ז, ולעה”ב איני יודע כמה, צא ולמד ממצות ציצית; מעשה באדם אחד שהיה זהיר במצות ציצית, שמע שיש זונה בכרכי הים שנוטלת ד’ מאות זהובים בשכרה, שיגר לה ארבע מאות זהובים וקבע לה זמן. כשהגיע זמנו, בא וישב על הפתח. נכנסה שפחתה ואמרה לה: אותו אדם ששיגר ליך ד’ מאות זהובים בא וישב על הפתח, אמרה היא: יכנס,
נכנס. הציעה לו ז’ מטות, שש של כסף ואחת של זהב, ובין כל אחת ואחת סולם של כסף ועליונה של זהב, עלתה וישבה על גבי עליונה כשהיא ערומה, ואף הוא עלה לישב ערום כנגדה, באו ד’ ציציותיו וטפחו לו על פניו, נשמט וישב לו ע”ג קרקע, ואף היא נשמטה וישבה ע”ג קרקע. אמרה לו: גפה של רומי, שאיני מניחתך עד שתאמר לי מה מום ראית בי. אמר לה: העבודה, שלא ראיתי אשה יפה כמותך, אלא מצוה אחת ציונו ה’ אלהינו וציצית שמה, וכתיב בה אני ה’ אלהיכם שתי פעמים, אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ואני הוא שעתיד לשלם שכר, עכשיו נדמו עלי כד’ עדים.
אמרה לו: איני מניחך עד שתאמר לי מה שמך ומה שם עירך ומה שם רבך ומה שם מדרשך שאתה למד בו תורה, כתב ונתן בידה. עמדה וחילקה כל נכסיה, שליש למלכות ושליש לעניים ושליש נטלה בידה, חוץ מאותן מצעות, ובאת לבית מדרשו של ר’ חייא. אמרה לו: רבי, צוה עלי ויעשוני גיורת, אמר לה: בתי, שמא עיניך נתת באחד מן התלמידים? הוציאה כתב מידה ונתנה לו, אמר לה: לכי זכי במקחך, אותן מצעות שהציעה לו באיסור הציעה לו בהיתר,
זה מתן שכרו בעה”ז, ולעה”ב איני יודע כמה
It was taught: R. Nathan said, There is not a single precept in the Torah, even the lightest, whose reward is not enjoyed in this world; and as to its reward in the future world I know not how great it is. Go and learn this from the precept of tzizit. Once a man, who was very scrupulous about the precept of tzizih, heard of a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold [dinars] for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold [dinars] and appointed a day with her. When the day arrived he came and waited at her door, and her maid came and told her, “That man who sent you four hundred gold [dinars] is here and waiting at the door,” to which she replied, “Let him come in.”
When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes [of his garment] struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off and sat upon the ground. She also slipped off and sat upon the ground and said, “By the Roman Capitol, I will not leave you alone until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” “By the Temple,” he replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one precept which the Lord our God has commanded us, it is called tzizit, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is twice written, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future, and I am He who will give reward in the future. Now [the tzizit] appeared to me as four witnesses [testifying against me].”
She said, “I will not leave you until you tell me your name, the name of your town, the name of your teacher, the name of your school in which you study the Torah.” He wrote all this down and handed it to her. Thereupon she arose and divided her estate into three parts; one third for the government, one third to be distributed among the poor, and one third she took with her in her hand; the bed clothes, however, she retained. She then came to the Beth Hamidrash of R. Hiyya, and said to him, “Master, give instructions about me that they make me a proselyte.” “My daughter,” he replied, “perhaps you have set your eyes on one of the disciples?” She thereupon took out the script and handed it to him. ”Go,” said he, “and enjoy your acquisition. Those very bed-clothes which she had spread for him for an illicit purpose she now spread out for him lawfully.”
This is the reward [of the precept] in this world; and as for its reward in the future world I know not how great it is.

Rema – No Zera LiVatalah in the Marital Context

Rema rules that when the husband ejaculates in the context of marital sexual activity, it is not considered zera li’vatalah but rather marital sex.  Some want to limit Rema’s ruling to a case of anal intercourse, which halakhically is considered to be intercourse, and claim that it would not extend to other forms of marital sex (e.g., oral or manual stimulation leading to ejaculation).  However, Drisha clearly did not understand Rema this way, and applies his ruling to “sex by way of limbs,” e..g, orally or manually. 

As to why Rema does not voice his more permissive approach in Orah Hayyim, Rav Knohl and others explain that Shulkhan Arukh’s ruling in Orah Hayyim is a midat chasidut, a way of piety, and not the strict law.  Finally, Kedushat Ohel argues that the most basic level of kedushah that one should strive for is to focus on his or her partner’s willingness and pleasure.

Rema, Shulhan Arukh Even Haezer, 25:2:

ויכול לעשות עם אשתו מה שירצה, בועל בכל עת שירצה ומנשק בכל אבר שירצה, ובא עליה בין כדרכה בין שלא כדרכה, או דרך אברים ובלבד שלא יוציא זרע לבטלה (טור). ויש מקילין ואומרים שמותר שלא כדרכה אפילו אם הוציא זרע, אם עושה באקראי ג ואינו רגיל בכך (גם זה טור בשם ר”י). ואע”פ שמותר בכל אלה, כל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו (דברי הרב).Rema: And he may do with his wife what he wants – he may have sex at any time that he wants, he may kiss any body part that he wants, and he may have sex with her whether in the natural way or in the non-natural way, or whether by way of limbs, provided that he does not spill his seed to waste. And some are lenient and say that it is permissible to have sex in the non-natural way even if he ejaculates, if this is done occasionally and he is not habitual in this behavior. And although all such behavior is permissible, whoever sanctifies himself in permissible realms, “holy” will he be called.

Drisha, Even Haezer, 23:1:

אסור להוציא שכבת זרע לבטלה וכו’. נראה פשוט דבזה אפילו ר”י מודה דאע”ג דכתב רבינו בשמו בריש ס’ כ:ה דמותר לשמש עם אשתו אפילו שלא כדרכה ואפילו דרך איברים ואף על פי שמוציא זרע לבטלה שאני התם דמוציא זרע דרך שימוש ולא נתכוין להוציא זרע לבטלה אלא שבא ממילא מה שאין כן בדש מפבנים וזורה מבחוץ דנתכוין להוציא לבטלה וק”ל…It is forbidden to waste seed [having sex vaginally and ejaculating outside of the woman] (Tur) – it seems obvious that even R”I would agree to this. For although the Tur writes in his name in Siman 25 that it is permitted for a man to have sex with his wife even in the non-natural way and even by way of the limbs, and even if he ejaculates – there it is different, for the seed is spilled by way of intercourse and he does not intend to spill it to waste, rather it comes about incidentally. Such is not the case here, where one “threshes on the inside and winnows on the outside” where he intends to spill it to waste. And this is easy to understand…

Et Dodim, Rav Elyashiv Knohl, p. 40, note 52

בשולחן ערוך אבן העזר ס’ כ”ה סע’ ב’ מצטט הרמ”א את דברי הרמב”ם – שהכל מותר, ובסוף מסיים “ואף על פי שמותר בכל אלה כל המקדש עצמו במותר לו, ‘קדוש’ יאמר לו.” לעומת זאת, באורח חיים פסק השולחן ערוך כראב”ד שאסור להסתכל ולנשק שם, והרמ”א לא מגיב על דברי השולחן ערוך שם כלל. נראה שצריך לפרש זאת כך: באורח חיים השולחן ערוך כותב את מידות החסידות, כפי שנראה שם גם מסעיפים אחרים, ועל כן הרמ”א לא נחלק עליו שם. לעומת זה, באבן העזר עוסק השולחן ערוך בעיקר בשורת הדין. על כן, לא ציין איסור זה, והרמ”א ראה לנכון לציין את דעתו של הרמב”ם שהיא שורת הדין לדעתו, אלא שהוא מציין שכל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמר לו. למעשה, מצטטים האחרונים את דברי השולחן ערוך באורח חיים ואוסרים את שני הדברים הללו – ההסתכלות והנישוק באותו מקום.In Shulkhan Arukh, Even HaEzer, 25:2, Rema cites the words of Rambam – that everything is permitted, and in the end he concludes, “And although a person is permitted in all these matters, whoever sanctifies himself in that which is permitted to him, ‘holy’ it will be said of him.” In contrast, in Orah Hayim, Shulkhan Arukh rules like Raavad that it is forbidden to gaze and to kiss there, and Rema does not react to the words of the Shulkhan Arukh there at all. It appears that we must explain it thus: In Orah Hayim, the Shulkhan Arukh is writing the way of saintly behavior, as can be seen there from the other seifim as well, and therefore Rema did not dispute the matter with him there. In contrast, in Even HaEzer, the Shulkhan Arukh is primarily dealing with what is actual halakha. Therefore he did not cite this prohibition, and Rema there saw fit to cite position of Rambam, which is the actual halakha in his opinion, but he also cites that anyone who sanctifies himself in that which is permitted to him, ‘holy’ it will be said of him. In practice, the Achronim quote the words of Shulkhan Arukh in Orah Hayyim and forbid both matters – gazing and kissing in that place.

Kedushat HaOhel, p. 37, Rav Shmuel Kedar (Jerusalem, 1953-2006):

המחבר נקט כשיטת הראב”ד ואף הוסיף להחמיר עליו. ואילו הרמ”א נקט שעיקר הדין כהרמב”ם והוסיף שכל המקדש עצמו במותר לו קדוש יאמרו לו. ונראה שקדושה זו עניינה היסודי: רצון שניהן ושמחתם, ומעלין בקודש על דרך השולחן ערוך… ושמא אף המחבר מודה לרמ”א רק שהראה את המסילה בה יעלו במעלות הקודש יראי ה’ וחושבי שמו.The Mechaber adopted the positions of Raavad, and even added on this to be stricter even still. Whereas Rema rules that as a matter of law the ruling is in accordance with Rambam, and he adds that ‘whoever sanctifies himself in that which is permitted to him, ‘holy’ shall be said of him.” Now it appears that the core principle of this sanctity to which he refers is: the desire of the two of them and their pleasure. And this is an even higher level of sanctify that that of the Shulkhan Arukh… And perhaps the Mechaber even would agree with Rema, but he is merely pointing to a path that one can ascend to higher level of sanctity for those who are particularly righteous.

Responsa Benei Banim, vol. 4, 16:1:

וחושבני שלפי תנאי הדור שרבים לא גדלו בקדושה והם חשופים לפריצות של הרחוב, אם נכביד עליהם שמא ילכו לרעות בשדות אחרים ח”ו לכן מצוה למצוא להם סיפוק בתוך בתיהם…It is my opinion that given the circumstances of this generation, where many have not been raised in holiness, and they are exposed to the immodesty of the street, were we to burden them [with halakhic demands], perhaps they would go to graze in other fields, G-d forbid! Therefore, it is a mitzvah to find a way for them to find satisfaction in their own homes…